Is the "Bible Alone" Our Sole Rule of Faith?
Almost all Protestants believe in sola scriptura. This doctrine claims the "Bible alone" is the Christian's authority in matters of faith. Protestant evangelizers often state: "Let's agree that the Bible is our sole rule of faith." Catholics must answer: "NO!" They are asking you to reject Sacred Tradition and the Church's authority.
Christ established a Church to teach, govern, and sanctify in His name until the end of time. To reject that authority is reject Christ and His Gospel. We Catholics accept the Bible as an authority in matters of faith because it is God's inspired Word. But we cannot accept it as the only rule of faith for the following reasons.
Sola Scriptura Goes Against the Bible
Scripture tells us that Christ founded a Church with divine authority to govern in His name (Matthew 16:13-20, 18:18; Luke 10:16). Christ promised that His Church would last until the end of time (Matthew 16:18, 28:19-20; John 14:16). The Bible also tells us that we must follow Sacred Tradition along with Sacred Scripture (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6).
The doctrine of sola scriptura is not found in Scripture. In fact, the Bible tells us that we need more than just the Bible alone. The Bible confirms that we must also hold fast to oral tradition, the preached Word of God (1 Corinthians 11:2; 1 Peter 1:25). In 2 Peter 3:15-16, St. Peter warns us that Sacred Scripture can be difficult to interpret, strongly implying the need for an authoritative interpreter. Finally, 1 Timothy 3:15 tells us the Church is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth."
Sola Scriptura Goes Against History
The history of the Bible attests that it was the Church exercising its apostolic authority that determined what is and is not Scripture. We need the authority of the Church to know for sure what belongs in the Bible (1 Timothy 3:15).
G.K. Chesterton observed that it is totally inconsistent to accept the Bible but reject the Church that offers it. Proponents of sola scriptura are merely using "one piece of Catholic furniture to break up all the other Catholic furniture." He describes them as men who
rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he have not faked his Scriptures? (26)
The splintering of Christianity into over 33,000 denominations (27) is the direct fruit of the Bible-alone doctrine. This idea does not come from God and was unheard of for 1500 years before the Reformation.
Sola Scriptura Goes Against Common Sense
Any written document meant to play a crucial role in determining how people live must have a living, continuing authority to guard, guarantee, and officially interpret it. Otherwise, chaos would reign as everyone interpreted the document according to his personal whim.
The Founding Fathers of this country put together a magnificent document to authoritatively determine how this country would be governed: the U.S. Constitution. They also established a living, continuing authority to guard, guarantee, and officially interpret the Constitution: the Supreme Court.
The Founding Fathers knew that without a living authority the Constitution would lead to endless divisions as each one acted as his own interpreter. God certainly has more wisdom than the founders of this country. He would never have left a written document to be the only rule of faith without a living authority to guard and officially interpret it.
Verses Used to Defend Sola Scriptura
2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
Protestants allege, "This passage proves that the Bible is all Christians need." However, what the Greek says is every (not all) Scripture is inspired, and when Scripture is used in the singular it refers to an individual passage or book, not the whole Bible (which is the Scriptures - plural). Thus, if this passage proves sola scriptura, then it proves too much. If this verse proves that the whole of Scripture is sufficient, then every individual Scripture in it is also sufficient. In addition to sola whole Bible, we could claim sola Matthew, sola Mark, or even sola 3 John.
Notice also, that just because something is "profitable" or useful doesn't mean that it is all we ever need or that it is the only thing we need. Something can be profitable without being totally sufficient or exclusively necessary. A hoe is profitable for weeding a garden. But the hoe is not sufficient for growing a garden. We also need soil, water, seeds, and sunlight. Nor is a hoe absolutely necessary for weeding a garden. We could weed with a shovel, trowel, or with our hands instead.
"But wait," our Protestant friends continue, "Scripture makes the man of God 'complete' and 'equipped for every good work;' therefore Scripture is totally sufficient." The Bible speaks of many things making a man complete. In 2 Timothy 2:19-21, St. Paul says that whoever purifies himself from ignoble things will become "ready for every good work." St. Paul uses the exact same Greek phrase as in 2 Timothy 3:17 (pan ergon agathon - "for every good work"). If we apply the same reasoning as 2 Timothy 3:17, St. Paul would be saying that our personal efforts to become purified are "sufficient" - apart from grace, faith, or conversion - which is an absurd conclusion.
The same absurdity occurs when we apply this reasoning to James 1:4: "Let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." This is far stronger language than that found in 2 Timothy 3:17. If 2 Timothy 3:17 proves that Scripture is sufficient, then James 1:4 - which uses even stronger language - proves that mere steadfastness is sufficient, and that things like grace, faith, repentance, and even Scripture are totally unnecessary. No one accepts that conclusion.
John 5:39 - "Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" [King James Version].
"See," our Protestant friends assert, "Jesus is commanding us to search the Scriptures. He doesn't tell us to consult Tradition or the Church. He tells us to consult the Scriptures alone." This verse also fails to prove sola scriptura for two reasons: (1) Most translations render this verse as a statement of fact, not a command: "You search [or "are searching"] the Scriptures...." Jesus is telling the Jews that He is the fulfillment of their OT Scriptures. He is saying, "You think you know the Scriptures, but you missed their whole point - me." (2) If somehow this verse proves sola scriptura, then it proves that the OT alone is sufficient since the NT hadn't been written yet.
Matthew 4:1-11. Three times in this passage, Jesus responds to the devil's temptations by saying, "It is written," referring to Scripture.
"Notice," Protestants say, "Jesus did not appeal to Tradition or the Church. He appealed three times to Scripture. That means Scripture alone is to be our guide to truth." But that's not what this passage means at all. Notice that one of the verses Jesus uses to rebuke the devil is, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Not all of God's words are contained in Scripture. Many of God's words come to us orally (see John 21:25; Acts 20:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, 3:6; 2 Timothy 2:2). Moreover, Jesus is the preeminent Word of God (John 1:1, 14).
Jesus is not teaching a "Bible alone" approach to truth. He is reminding us to hold and live by every word He speaks, not just those written down in Scripture. Notice also that merely quoting Scripture is not enough to establish truth. The devil himself - in this very passage - quotes Scripture for his untruthful purposes. We must also rightly understand and interpret Scripture. As St. Peter warned, "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16).
Acts 17:11: "Now these Jews [in Beroea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word in all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so."
Notice that this isn't a command to "examine the Scriptures daily," but a statement of fact. St. Luke is simply contrasting the receptive attitude of the Beroeans with the riotous attitude of the Thessalonians who refused to receive the Christian message (Acts 17:1-8). Again, the "Scriptures" referred to here are the OT. So if this passage proves sola scriptura, then it proves sola OT.
Finally, notice that the Beroeans accept both St. Paul's oral proclamation of God's word as well as the written Scriptures. The Beroeans are not Bible-only believers. They use the written word to confirm St. Paul's oral word. The Beroeans are commended for being willing to see whether what Paul was saying about the OT's Messianic prophecies was true, not for skeptically testing every claim they heard.
Revelation 22:18-19: "I warn everyone who hears the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."
"We Protestants don't add anything to the Bible, like you Catholics do with your traditions." However, "this book" refers to the book of Revelation itself, not to the Bible as a whole. The word for "book" refers to a scroll, and the whole Bible was never placed in a single scroll. Thus, the warning is against textually corrupting the book of Revelation. The same applies to every book of Scripture, but this doesn't tell us anything about which books are Scripture or whether there are other places God's word is found. Consider: In Deuteronomy 4:2 and 11:32, Moses gives the same command not to add to or subtract from any of his words. What are we to do with all the books in the OT after Deuteronomy as well as all the books of the NT? If Revelation 22:18-19 proves sola scriptura, then Deuteronomy 4:2 proves sola scriptura, then Deuteronomy 4:2 proves sola Torah (the first five OT books).
Matthew 15:3: "And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" (See similar verses Mark 7:7-9 and Colossians 2:8.)
"See, both Jesus and St. Paul condemn tradition." True enough, but the traditions they condemn are human traditions that are contrary to the laws of God. They are not condemning all tradition. In 1 Corinthians 11:2, St. Paul commends the people for holding fast to the traditions he gave them:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul commands people to:
Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
Far from condemning all oral traditions, the Bible tells us to follow Apostolic (Sacred) Tradition just as we would the written Scriptures.
(26) G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1948), 20-21
(27) The 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford University Press counts 33,830 denominations within Christianity.
Included in this booklet:
INTRODUCTION TO SACRED SCRIPTURE
THE CANON OF THE BIBLE
IS THE "BIBLE ALONE" OUR SOLE RULE OF FAITH (included above)
PRACTICAL POINTS ON BIBLE READING
PRINCIPLES FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATIONS
HOW TO READ THE BIBLE FOR MEDITATION
DISSIDENT BIBLICAL SCHOLARS
COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE
Father Frank Chacon, and Jim Burnham. Beginning Apologetics 7: How to Read the Bible: A Catholic Introduction to Interpreting and Defending Sacred Scriptures. Farmington, NM: San Juan Catholic Seminars, 2003-2014. Print.
To order one or more of the Beginning Apologetics books by Father Frank Chacon and Jim Burnham, see San Juan Catholic Seminars' website.